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I was asked to referee a mathematics article, submitted for publication in a reputable journal. To evaluate it, I also wanted to look at a cited article which it claims to extend. Upon searching online (through my university's VPN) I hit a paywall: I can read it for "only" $39.95.

My university subscribes to some journals, but apparently not this one. I find this price ridiculous and I will not pay. But I am also reluctant to ask my library to; that money is coming out of our students' tuition. If I ask a librarian to furnish me with a copy of the article, will they be out this same $40?

Related question: will publishers (requesting that I do peer review for them) obtain and provide articles upon request, in situations like this?

(Related but different.)


Update: People gave me the (excellent!) advice to ask my librarians, and they got back to me. Their answer in brief: It depends. Usually, it doesn't cost my library anything; sometimes it can, but the requests go through different channels than the paywall I encountered.

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    It's a great question for the site - but it would also be a great opportunity to talk to your university librarians. In my experience they are very interested in keeping faculty informed about their services and how they work. – Nate Eldredge Jul 18 '17 at 23:28
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    This is an interesting question - upvoted - but I disagree with your reasoning for asking it: regardless of how much this would cost your library, I see no point for you to second-guess your library's decisions about which services to offer and how much money to spend on them. Presumably the library's administrators understand much better than you how much money they have, where it comes from, and what they'd like to spend it on. In other words, this should not be a factor in your decision. But in any case simple curiosity is already a good enough reason to discuss this. – Dan Romik Jul 19 '17 at 4:02
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    Of course, I don't use sci-hub, but I want to make sure you have heard of it. You can read about all the people who do in this science article. – axsvl77 Jul 19 '17 at 5:59
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    I do not remember how many times I requested authors for their articles, which I couldn't get for free. But I do remember that it was successful all the time. People are very happy when you ask them to provide their papers. I found this solution much better in terms of communication between researchers. Of course, in this case, you do not need to inform them that the purpose is to review another paper. Rather, "I found you paper interesting and I do not have access to its publisher, I would be grateful if you could send me a copy". – Younes Jul 19 '17 at 6:57
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    @sgroves: I have no qualms about requesting an article it's for my own scholarship. But if it's for the sake of peer review, for a publisher that is in the business to make money, then my feeling is that they should bear the costs. – Anonymous Jul 19 '17 at 17:36
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You should not hesitate to ask the library for articles like this. The library most likely will pay a fee, but it will probably be less than the $40 for you to access it directly, and is an expected budget item for academic libraries.

There are costs associated with interlibrary loan (ILL) transactions, but they are minimal for articles that can be handled entirely electronically (for things that need to be physically transmitted, like books, and/or processed in some way, like print articles that must be scanned, the costs can be substantially higher). Since you found this article online, it probably falls in that cheapest category.

Many libraries also have agreements with publishers to "buy on demand" some articles that are requested through ILL. This usually happens entirely behind the scenes, so you probably wouldn't know the difference between such an article and traditional cross-library lending. It may cost the library more than ILL, but the library then "owns" the article so any future requests for that article will be at no additional cost, unlike ILL, which costs the same every time.

As an academic librarian, I can tell you that the library almost certainly has a budget for this kind of thing, and if it were my institution, I would want you to use this basic library service to get the materials you need to do your job (almost as much as I want students to get the materials they need). Nothing in a library is actually free*; making information accessible is the reason libraries—and library budgets—exist.


*Of course there are open access journals, donated books, etc., but someone had to pay for all of those, too, one way or another.

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    Don't forget (though the writer of this answer might be too modest to have mentioned it!) that the most important resources available in most libraries are the librarians. Get to know them, make sure they get to know you, and a lot of future frustration trying to locate "untraceable and unobtainable" references will vanish away like the morning dew! – alephzero Jul 19 '17 at 13:34
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    At my institution's library, the librarians want us to use interlibrary loan to help justify the costs. – Ben Norris Jul 19 '17 at 22:27
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As to publishers: if the article you need was published by the same publisher as the journal you're reviewing for, there is a chance. Indeed, a few publishers grant temporary online subscriptions to reviewers. But otherwise, probably not.

Also, if you contact the editor and let them know that you need this other article to be able to review properly, and if the editor happens to have institutional access to the journal in question, and if they are not too busy, they might send you a copy of the article as a professional courtesy.

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    Definitely ask the editor. It's not your problem but his. (Surprisingly, I once had the editor ask me, the author, for a paper I referenced - more surprisingly is that the reference was from the very same journal I submitted!) – Shake Baby Jul 19 '17 at 2:22
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Likely not. Most university libraries have partnerships with other libraries. They will likely contact a library that does have access and request a copy. This usually comes with some limitations (for example they might only give you a paper copy, not a .pdf version) but they shouldn't pay anything extra.

I do not believe publishers will ask provide papers at request however. They likely expect you to do the above process if you don't have access.

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    Where I work is the converse: they no longer provide paper copies but send a link for a single download of the appropriate pdf. You can keep the pdf and share it. The paperless option is faster and cheaper in terms of handling fees (someone somewhere had to photocopy it, and send it etc.) – user67075 Jul 19 '17 at 0:58
  • In Germany papers ordered through ILL are sent to the requester's library in digital form, but then printed out locally and handled out to the requester, as the copyright laws forbids the libraries to share digital copies. In this way the libraries are freed from paying the fees to the publisher. – greenb Jul 21 '17 at 18:06
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If I ask a librarian to furnish me with a copy of the article, will they be out this same $40?

Maybe... but probably not.

First, there are the inter-library agreements mentioned in other answers, which may allow the library to get you a copy at no cost.

Failing that, the library may have existing agreements with the publishers which would allow them to get a copy of the article at a reduced cost.

And then there's the possibility that, yes, access to the article may need to be purchased at full cost. Even then, that's no big deal. A substantial portion of your institutional library's budget is set aside specifically for obtaining access to publications for researchers at the institution. Buying this access is what the money is there for!

Also, if you're specifically concerned about the cost being borne by the library (as opposed to by some other entity), the cost may, in the end, be shared between the library and your department, depending on the specific arrangements in place at your institution.

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My library has a fund set aside for requests. It is specifically earmarked for things they don't have that someone might want. So ask; at worst they tell you no.

  • Please elaborate. This is not an answer, it could be considered a comment. – Coder Jul 19 '17 at 18:05
  • He asked about where the money for an article may come from if he requests it via a library. Libaries do have discretionary funds, as he didn't specify the library I have no way of seeing if his does. – DCook Jul 20 '17 at 16:13
  • But what if they tell you "no"? – Michael Richardson Jul 20 '17 at 21:18

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